Subluxation-based chiropractic care is sustained more by faith than by facts
Much of what is discussed in this article has been said before in previous articles I have written for Science-Based Medicine. But since the audience for SBM has greatly increased over the past few years, some subject matter should be repeated for the new readers and researchers coming to this site for reliable information on health care.
Many consumers now search SBM for articles dealing with controversial alternative treatment methods that have been shown to be ineffective or to be loaded with fraud and quackery. Chiropractic in particular continues to be problematic for its failure to renounce the scientifically indefensible, nonfalsifiable subluxation theory that defines the profession as a whole. A review of chiropractic web sites reveals that many chiropractors continue to base their treatment methods on subluxation theory, encompassing a broad scope of health problems. Some chiropractors are now including use of “functional medicine” which uses “natural tools” to treat diabetes, thyroid disease, neuropathy, and other diseases best treated by conventional medical care. Most alarming of all is the treatment of infants and children by “pediatric chiropractors.” Chiropractors are being certified in 10 different specialties, including a diplomate in Diagnosis and Internal Disorders.
As long as chiropractic is licensed as a health-care profession based on subluxation theory or some other unscientific approach, it will continue to be subjected to scrutiny and criticism by the science-based community. It is, in fact, the moral and ethical responsibility of science-based practitioners to oppose any form of unscientific health care, wherever it might exist, separating sense from nonsense without being influenced by politics, special interest, pseudoscience, or belief systems.
The saga of chiropractic began in 1895 when D.D. Palmer, a magnetic healer, announced that “95 percent of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae, the remainder by luxations of other joints.” Palmer opened the first chiropractic school in Davenport, Iowa, offering a three-week course of study at the Palmer School and Cure, subsequently renamed the Palmer School of Chiropractic. The school was taken over by B.J. Palmer, the son of D.D. Palmer, in 1906. In 1910, the course of instruction was six months. Kansas and North Dakota were the first states to pass laws legalizing the practice of chiropractic (in 1913 and 1915). By 1921, the Palmer School of Chiropractic, requiring 18 months of study, had 2,000 students, reaching a peak enrollment of 3,600 in 1922. By 1923, 27 states had chiropractic licensing boards. Hundreds of chiropractic schools sprang up, some offering correspondence courses. There were no entrance requirements, anyone could become a chiropractor. H.L. Mencken wrote in the December 11th, 1924, issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun:
Today the backwoods swarm with chiropractors, and in most States they have been able to exert enough pressure on the rural politicians to get themselves licensed. Any lout with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary.1
Although Palmer’s subluxation theory was contrary to all known laws of anatomy and physiology, the theory was appealing to the general public. Medical science was in its infancy, struggling to find effective and safe remedies for disease and infection. There was no known cure for many common ailments, and many of the medicines used by physicians were ineffective or harmful. In the public marketplace, the door was wide open for snake oil salesmen, entrepreneurs, and opportunists who could mix a concoction or fabricate a new treatment guaranteed to work. With growing numbers of chiropractors treating disease and infection by adjusting the spine to relieve alleged pressure on spinal nerves, offering treatment claimed to be superior to medical care, members of the medical community felt an obligation to oppose what they viewed to be blatant, unbridled quackery.
An old Palmer illustration showing how a displaced vertebra could cause disease by pinching a spinal nerve.
I am often asked, “What do chiropractors do?” That’s not an easy question to answer. The answer is usually expected to be, “They treat back trouble.” But as alternative medicine practitioners, chiropractors do a lot of things, and they treat a variety of ailments, based largely on a scientifically-invalid vertebral subluxation theory which proposes that nerve interference resulting from a misaligned vertebra or a dysfunctional spinal segment can affect general health.
As a co-host of the Chirobase web site, I frequently answer questions about chiropractic, some of which are published in a section titled “Consumer Strategy/Consumer Protection.” In this post, I’ll focus on these:
- Are Subluxations Causing My Health Problems?
- Is a Misaligned Atlas Causing My Back Pain?
- What is that “Thumper” My Chiropractor Uses on My Back?
- How Does a Chiropractor Locate Subluxations?
- Should I Let a Chiropractor Adjust My Baby?
- Why Is Every Chiropractor’s Treatment Different?
- Can Neck Manipulation Cause a Stroke?
- Should I Go to a Chiropractic College?
- Are There Any Good Chiropractors?
- Is It Possible to Reform the Chiropractic Profession?
By far, most of the questions I receive express concern about questionable methods and advice offered in the offices of chiropractors. Many questions are generated by the suspicions of patients who initially visited a chiropractor for treatment of back pain and who were then offered spinal adjustments as a treatment for health problems unrelated to the spine. Patients are often concerned about the expense involved in such care, usually extended over a long period of time, followed by “maintenance care” to correct or prevent “vertebral subluxations” after symptoms have resolved. I generally advise patients to refuse chiropractic care for anything other than a musculoskeletal problem, to seek treatment only when symptoms are present, never pay for treatment in advance, and to discontinue treatment and see an orthopedic specialist if symptoms worsen after a few days or have not subsided after a week or so.
Chiropractors often deny that neck manipulation can be a primary cause of stroke by injuring vertebral arteries. But according to Jean-Yves Maigne, M.D., head of the Department of Physical Medicine at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Paris, France:
It is now a well established fact that cervical thrust manipulation can harm the vertebral artery. This accident was formerly regarded as very rare, although severe, and related to atherosclerosis. Clinical tests were proposed to detect patients at risk. The problem is now better known. It is no longer attributed to atherosclerosis…but to a dissection of a vertebral artery, a clinical entity observed in younger patients (20-45 years). It remains very rare, but mild symptoms appear to be not so infrequent. Finally, the predicting tests seem to be deprived of any value.1
In 1997, the French Society of Orthopaedic and Osteopathic Manual Medicine (SOFMMOO), following presentations by anatomists, neurologists, radiologists, and practitioners in the field of French Manual Medicine, adopted the neck-manipulation proposals made by Dr. Maigne.1 “Acknowledging the fact that prevention is out of reach,” said Dr. Maigne, “the aim of these recommendations is to reduce the number of (not to say to suppress) rotational cervical thrust manipulations in a targeted population. This population consists mainly in females of less than 50 years old. Five recommendations were developed, in addition to classic contraindications of spinal manipulative therapy.”
The recommendations of the SOFMMOO, dealing with cervical manipulation in general and allowing the use of neck manipulation in special cases, are worth considering since they were reviewed by medical specialists in different disciplines and approved by licensed practitioners who use manual therapy, long before the stroke-neck-manipulation furor reached its peak in the United States.
Can neck manipulation cause strokes? Most MDs and many chiropractors agree that it can, but some chiropractors disagree. The subject has been covered on SBM before: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. We keep returning to the subject not because it is a common problem (it isn’t), but because it is such a devastating one, and because the general public is still not aware of the risk.
A 2012 study published in the International Journal Of Clinical Practice “Assessing the risk of stroke from neck manipulation: a systematic review” concluded:
Conclusive evidence is lacking for a strong association between neck manipulation and stroke, but is also absent for no association.
Despite the uncertainty, they thought the association was strong enough to recommend informed consent be obtained and patients be warned that neck manipulation “may” increase the risk of a rare type of stroke.
A new study in the same journal, “Chiropractic and Stroke: Association or Causation?” applies Hill’s criteria of causation to the evidence and concludes that causality has not been determined. The author is Peter Tuchin, a senior lecturer in chiropractic at Macquarie University in Australia, and a known apologist for chiropractic. I agree with him that the existing evidence is inadequate to conclusively determine causality, but I think it supports a high probability of causality, and the alternate explanations he offers to exonerate chiropractors are questionable. And other factors should be considered, like the many “smoking gun” cases and whether there is any conclusive evidence of benefit to set against the possibility of risk. (more…)
The General Chiropractic Council, a UK-wide statutory body with regulatory powers, has just published a new position statement on the chiropractic subluxation complex:
The chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex is an historical concept but it remains a theoretical model. It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns.
They remind chiropractors that they must make sure their own beliefs and values do not prejudice the patient’s care, and that they must provide evidence-based care. Unfortunately, they define evidence-based care as
clinical practice that incorporates the best available evidence from research, the preferences of the patient and the expertise of practitioners, including the individual chiropractor her/himself. [emphasis added]
This effectively allows “in my experience” and “the patient likes it” to be considered along with evidence, effectively negating the whole point of evidence-based medicine.
An article written by 3 chiropractors and a PhD in physical education and published on December 2, 2009 in the journal Chiropractic and Osteopathy may have sounded the death knell for chiropractic.
The chiropractic subluxation is the essential basis of chiropractic theory. A true subluxation is a partial dislocation: chiropractors originally believed bones were actually out of place. When x-rays proved this was not true, they were forced to re-define the chiropractic subluxation as “a complex of functional and/or structural and/or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system function and general health.” Yet most chiropractors are still telling patients their spine is out of alignment and they are going to fix it. Early chiropractors believed that 100% of disease was caused by subluxation. Today most chiropractors still claim that subluxations cause interference with the nervous system, leading to suboptimal health and causing disease.
What’s the evidence? In the 114 years since chiropractic began, the existence of chiropractic subluxations has never been objectively demonstrated. They have never been shown to cause interference with the nervous system. They have never been shown to cause disease. Critics of chiropractic have been pointing this out for decades, but now chiropractors themselves have come to the same conclusion. (more…)
Chiropractic originated in 1895 when D.D. Palmer claimed to have restored deaf janitor Harvey Lillard’s hearing by manipulating his spine. This makes no anatomical sense, and few if any chiropractors claim to be able to reverse deafness today. But now a chiropractic website is attempting to vindicate D. D. Palmer. They list deafness among a long (wrong) list of “Conditions That Respond Well to Chiropractic”
They list 6 supporting studies. Three are case reports, two are case series, and one is a review of the literature that is labeled in its title as “A Search to Validate” D.D. Palmer. (more…)
In the comments to a previous blog entry, a chiropractor made the following statements:
1. Chiropractic is a science.
2. Chiropractic is based on neurology, anatomy and physiology.
3. Chiropractors are doctors of the nervous system.
4. Chiropractic improves health and quality of life.
I offered to write a blog entry on the “science” of chiropractic, and I asked him, both in the comments section and by personal e-mail, to educate me first by providing me whatever evidence he could find to support those claims. I never heard back from him, so I was left to do my own research as best I could. Here’s what I found.
Is chiropractic a science? No.
In 1895, a magnetic healer named D. D. Palmer adjusted a deaf man’s back and allegedly restored his hearing. Generalizing from this one case, he reasoned that “A subluxated vertebra… is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases. …The other five percent is caused by displaced joints other than those of the vertebral column” (more…)